Onward

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  Onward
 

Robin:
Once upon a time there was magic in the world but now it is long gone. Two teen brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt), are given a very special gift from their mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) – a magical staff from their late dad. The boys are inspired to bring back the magic to the world and see their father for just one day in “Onward.”

I went into seeing “Onward” with little knowledge of the story or that it is the product of Disney/Pixar. When I saw that studio moniker at the start of the movie, I had images in my mind of all the wonderful and magical works that we have been seen from that collaboration and before – the “Toy Story” franchise, “The Incredibles,” ”Finding Nemo,” “Monsters, Inc.” are just a few that come to mind.

With “Onward,” we see the technical expertise that made the Pixar label an animation powerhouse. The attention to the many details of the precisely rendered CGI attest to the quality we have come to expect and love. The story, though, by director Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, is not quite up to the storytelling level of the above-named Pixar classics.

Still, “Onward” is an entertaining tale of two brothers and their quest to bring back their dad who Barley barely knew before he passed away and whom Ian had never met. The insecure Ian never had the dad needed to look up to and do things with. So, the promise of bringing him back, even for a day, is too hard to pass up. Fortunately, Barley is a master a magic games and he sees the staff as the way to unleash the world’s lost magic – and bring back dad.

The pretty straightforward story is full of magical legendary magical creatures, like elves (Ian and Barley), pixies, unicorns, centaurs, Cyclops and more. But, these exotic beings are just ordinary citizens in this CGI world and do all the jobs that we know and expect, like policemen. So, “Onward” is an odd mix of “normal” and “and supernatural” worlds as the brothers go on quest.

I came out of “Onward” not feeling as I expected to at the start of the movie. Usually, with a Pixar film, I anticipated something special. Here, I get a routine story, entertaining as it is, coupled with the CGI visual might of Disney/Pixar and the combo is good, not great. The moral of the story is….  But I’ll let you find that out for yourself. I give it a B.

Laura:
The world of New Mushroomton used to be a place where magic was the norm, but technological advances beginning with the light bulb have made that a mere memory for the elves, sprites, satyrs, cyclops, centaurs, gnomes and trolls who have become used to the sight of unicorns raiding their trashcans.  So, when on his 16th birthday, Ian Lightfoot’s (voice of Tom Holland) mom Laurel (voice of Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents him and his older brother the gift of a staff, Phoenix Gem and spell from the dad who died before Ian was born, Ian is dubious.  Thankfully, nineteen year-old Barley (voice of Chris Pratt), who drives a beat-up van he’s named Guinevere and obsessively plays the historically based fantasy game Quests of Yore, presses “Onward.”  

Drawing from his own experience, cowriter (with Jason Headley and "Horns'" Keith Bunin)/director Dan Scanlon ("Monsters University") has made the first Pixar movie which one would be hard pressed to recognize as a Pixar movie.  Pixar has been known for its incredible world building, but “Onward’s” world is Tolkien lite by way of Dreamworks’ dragons with a lead character who could easily slip into a Keebler elf commercial - Hanna-Barbera’s Flintstones or Jetsons showed more imagination creating alternate realities.  But while the story itself takes its time to get going, it finally sputters to life around its midpoint before working its way to a genuinely moving finale.  

Ian is an awkward kid introduced stumbling over inviting some other high school kids for cake.  Embarrassed by Barley’s exuberant arrival in his fantastically painted junker of a van, he backpedals.  At home, Barley is beside himself reading their dad’s spell (Only once is all we get. Grant me this rebirth.  Till tomorrow’s sun is set—one day to walk the Earth.), repeatedly attempting it in the belief it will grant him one more day with his dad, but when he fails he encourages Ian to try.  To Barley’s delight, it is nonbeliever Ian who has the magic touch, but he runs out of luck with their dad only half formed – from the waist down.  Using Quests of Yore as his Bible, Barley believes finding another Phoenix Gem is the answer to their problem and the two and a half elves slip past mom to set off on an adventure.

At its core, “Onward” is about brotherly bonding, the pragmatic Ian learning to have faith in Barley’s belief in magic.  Their quest will take them to the Tavern of the Manticore (voice of Octavia Spencer), up the Path of Peril, over a Trust Bridge and to Raven’s Point before landing them in the most unexpected of places.  Their panicked mom will follow, teaming up with the Manticore and facing down creepy pawn shop owner Grecklin (voice of Tracey Ullman), Dewdrop, the leader of the Pixie Dusters (voice of Grey Griffin), and an unconventional dragon.  Mom’s boyfriend, Officer Colt Bronco (voice of Mel Rodriguez), a centaur with a horsey laugh, assists in more ways than one when the kids are stopped by Officer Spector (voice of Lena Waithe) and Officer Gore (voice of Ali Wong).

Pratt is the standout of the vocal cast, his misunderstood Barley pushing through hurt.  The animation is at its best visualizing half a dad who communicates with toe taps, magical swirls rising from his belted pants when he’s not wearing the dummy top half hastily arranged by Ian.
But the Lightfoots’ frenetic pet dragon Blazey is about the only signpost that their home is of another world and many of the animation’s elements echo other movies.  The original song ‘Carried Me With You,’ cowritten and performed by Brandi Carlile over the closing credits, is another bland anthem.  For a film about magic, “Onward” is another sign that Pixar has lost some of its.

Grade:  B
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